My People and the 19th Hole

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How we look at the world is a matter of personal experiences and how we integrate them. Each new experience confirms or changes how we see and what we see. Reading exchanges about Baltimore took me back to a shattering of perception at the end of a summer internship as a street outreach worker with Corinthian Avenue Chapel in North Philadelphia. The acknowledgements of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness take the reader back to “the Brothers of Opal Street”:

Last, but by no means least, is a group of men who would be shocked to find themselves mentioned anywhere but in a courtroom. “The Brothers of Opal Street,” as they called themselves — eight black homeless former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary in North Philadelphia — had a farewell conversation in late August 1962, with me, a naive nineteen year-old street outreach worker. As we sat on the stoop of a boarded up tenement on Opal Street, they said good-bye with a startling instruction not to return to the ghetto. “Go back to ‘your people’ and change things there. Only when things change there will there be hope for the people here.”

What they called “my people” lived in the white western suburbs of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that last day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. xiv

Opal Street was one-block long with no traffic. The far end of the street was boarded in the same way the street’s tenements were. At the far end was the yellow chalk outline of a body. Half way between the entrance to Opal Street and the police chalk mark sat the men on wood orange crates, passing the bottle or the jug to numb themselves against the world that had no regard for their dignity or the stories that had brought them there.

“‘Go back to your people and change things there” sent me home and off to college asking existential questions about who ‘my people’ were and what the relationship was between the manicured lawns, rash-free streets, and country clubs of the Mainline western suburbs and the “rat and rodent infested mess” I had left behind in North Philadelphia.

entrance gate to Mar-a-Largo

Some moments last a lifetime. Some experiences forever change what we see as much as how we see. It’s hard to see Opal Street over drinks at the 19th hole.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 29, 2019.

The Best and Worst Sellers Lists

Publishing is a pain in the neck; marketing what’s been published moves the pain down the spine to a lower place of an author’s anatomy. Unless, of course, the book makes the Best Sellers’ List because your publisher is one of the decreasing number of corporate giants who do the marketing and have the connections.

Small publishing houses like Wipf and Stock and its authors are ancestors of the poor man Lazarus left to pick up the crumbs from the rich man’s table. We do what we can to catch the reading public’s attention with an occasional success. But, without divine intervention, few, if any, make it to the New York Times Best Sellers list.

So, for the sake of all things just and fair, we herby propose an “alternative” list: The Worst Sellers List, and offer readers one of the “dog-eared” crumbs that fell from the table yesterday to a dog on The Worst Sellers List:

My reason for this email is to let you know that I have just finished reading your wonderful BE Still. We all need a “Departure from Collective Madness” and your book has been such a breath of sanity in the midst of this messy world. I’m grateful to you for your book. I read it, as someone else who has a copy is also reading theirs – one entry at a time on any given day.

I began to read your book and the very first thing I underlined was the instruction from “The Brothers of Opal Street.”*[see explanatory note below] I can’t tell you how many people I have told of that instruction of theirs, and the very wise pastor who passed on the message to us. The idea that we must change things where we live, instead of being the saviors to the poor in the ghetto, is such a powerful message.

Following from that, I went on to dog-ear the prayer from the Book of Common Worship. That prayer is so familiar to me and I love it. It’s not part of any prayers I learned in the Catholic school, but probably one I picked up from the “religion” of the other side of my family. As you may remember, or not, my parents came from two different backgrounds. Mom was very Catholic. My dad’s side followed no particular religious persuasion, with grandpa and my aunt never seeming to attend any church. My paternal Grandma Allie was Baptist, Presbyterian, or Congregational, depending on the Minister and the music. She loved the traditional hymns of her earlier years and they were often heard by me as she listened to her radio when she couldn’t get about and lived with us in our home. Also, Grandma had my mother join her Congregational church group aptly named The Friendly Circle, where every meeting began with a hymn and a Bible verse. I often went along to these meetings. There were probably no baby sitters available. As I grew older I went to baby sit the younger children there.

My underlining and “dog-earing” pages increased as I read of your liberal philosophy, your concern for the direction of this country and humanity as a whole, and your concern for all people of various colors, and persuasions. This diversity thing has become probably my greatest issue and concern. It’s so good to read the views of someone who shares the same perspective. With grandchildren who are half Afghan and whose Grandfather spent much time in Gaza working with USAID, a daughter who teaches the Ojibwe language and mentors Native students, another daughter married to a fellow who is Jewish, I have come to appreciate various perspectives and religions. I am thankful for all this learning. I find it goes a long way when dealing with folks who can be quite narrow in their thinking and really have no experience with other perspectives on a one to one basis.

Before this gets any longer I just want to say, “thanks again for the wonderful book.”

* The Brothers of Opal Street are honored in Be Still!‘s Acknowledgements. Remembering them again so many years later is appropriate to the date on the calendar: Juneteenth.

Last, but by no means least, is a group of men who would be shocked to find themselves mentioned anywhere but in a courtroom.

“The Brothers of Opal Street,” as they called themselves, eight black homeless former inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary, had a farewell conversation at the end of August, 1962 with me, a naive nineteen year-old church street outreach worker. As we sat on the stoop of a boarded up tenement on Opal Street, they said good-bye with a startling instruction not to return to the ghetto. “Go back to ‘your people’ and change things there. Only when things change there will there be hope for the people here.” What they called “my people” were in the white western suburb of Philadelphia. I have come to believe that lsat day on Opal Street was its own kind of ordination. This book is in memory of them. – Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p. xiv.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 19 — Juneteenth — 2017.